Protecting your credit: Worst. Thing. Ever. Who wants to spend even 30 seconds thinking about how vulnerable we are to identity theft? Especially when no one knows what to do and it sounds like a hideously painful process to actually go through.
It’s been in the back of my mind for months or years that I really ought to take some steps to prevent fraudulent accounts being opened in my name. Good God, how can I call myself an expert in personal finance if I can’t even take basic, common-sense steps? But to be honest, it sounded like a huge hassle to figure out what to do and then how long would I have to sit at the computer or on the phone taking care of it? I have enough going on in my life that it just never made it onto the front burner. In addition, I still wasn’t sure of the appropriate steps to take. I couldn’t place a fraud alert, as it seemed you needed to have been an actual victim of identity theft and have filed a police report. I thought about a credit freeze, as I wasn’t anticipating taking out a car loan or mortgage, or even opening a new credit card any time soon, but someone pointed out to me that every time you open a new cell phone account or utility account, they check your credit. A freeze sounded a little too permanent for me. I’ve been enrolled in a free credit monitoring service through AAA for several years, and although that provided some measure of comfort by alerting me any time my credit file was accessed, it didn’t really in itself prevent fraud – and it only applied to one of the three credit bureaus.
However, the Equifax breach was a major wake-up call for me, as I’m sure it was for many of you. In the aftermath, I keep reading and hearing from credit experts about steps to take. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Maine Calling, a show on Maine Public Radio, and a gentleman from the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection was a guest panelist. He shared with us that by Maine state law, the credit bureaus are required to allow Maine residents to freeze and unfreeze their credit for free as many times as we want. Residents of most other states have to pay a small fee every time they go through the process (something around $10). I had never before heard that the process was free for Mainers – probably because most publications I read are presented to a national audience.
So I added “freeze credit” to my to-do list. As much as I hated the idea of actually going through the process of freezing my credit, I hate leaving open items on my to-do list even more, so after seeing it sitting there for a week I finally sat down and took the plunge – taking notes along the way so that I could share my experience with you.
Here’s what I did:
- The first step I took was to look at my credit report before I froze anything, to make sure there wasn’t anything on there that I needed to clear up. I went to annualcreditreport.com, verified my identity by answering some questions about addresses where I’ve lived and loans I’ve had, and downloaded and printed my TransUnion credit report. I really should have done reports from all three major credit bureaus (Experian and Equifax are the other two), but I had trouble accessing the Experian report, and I decided it was enough to just have one. Each of the three credit bureaus should reflect identical information – it’s not as though each one only reports one-third of your accounts. Although it’s slightly wiser to check all three, my experience with my credit reports in the past has showed the same information on all three reports, so I was comfortable enough that when my TransUnion report was completely clean, I was willing to move along. I didn’t time how long it took me to go through this process, but I’d estimate not much more than about 10 minutes.
- Then, after resting up for a few days, I marshaled my courage and googled “TransUnion credit freeze”, which brought me to the informational page on TransUnion’s website about how to place a credit freeze. This was the most interesting one, as they were really pushing a free credit service called TrueIdentity. It was advertised as providing three major protections: a credit lock that I could place and remove by just logging in, text notification to my cell phone whenever someone tries to access my credit report, and free ID theft insurance of $25,000. I weighed that option versus a traditional credit freeze, and ended up enrolling in TrueIdenitity. If it had come with any cost at all, I would not have chosen that, but it’s entirely free, and I can always cancel and do a simple freeze instead. I also liked the text notification option. I did opt out of their marketing e-mails (I bet that’s why they push it so hard). The Transunion process took me 12 minutes to do – but that was my first one, and included thinking about my options, so it was by far the longest. I was happy with the process, and didn’t feel it was overly burdensome. Because I’m enrolled in their TrueIdentity service, I have a login name and password, not the PIN I would have received had I chosen to freeze my credit instead.
- I then moved on to Equifax. This one was super straight-forward, and it took me 4 minutes to place a credit freeze. I guess because my address is in Maine, there wasn’t even mention of a fee. I received a 10-digit PIN which I can use in the future to unfreeze my credit.
- Finally, I did Experian. Since by now I was an expert, this one only took me three minutes, and again was easy and free and again I got a 10-digit PIN.
I have to say, the entire process really wasn’t a big deal. Cumulatively, it took me less than 30 minutes and I didn’t swear or cry even one time. I not only verified that my credit report is clean, I’m now very confident that my credit files are secured – at least as far as I can be. I’ve done as much as I can to protect myself. Now I just have to tie my husband down so we can do his.